According to the New York Post (click on screenshot below), New York Times columnist Bret Stephens wrote a piece criticizing his editors and many staffers for asserting that, in firing science reporter Donald McNeil for saying the n-word, the intent of his utterance did not matter.
That, of course, is absolutely ludicrous. In fact, I find it hard to believe that the paper, even mired in its wokeness, cannot make the distinction between the didactic use of the word, as McNeil apparently used it, and a word thrown in someone’s face as an nasty racial slur. The law, of course, recognizes such differences. If you run someone down with your car deliberately, it’s not the same crime as accidentally hitting someone in the street because you were distracted. There are many examples like this. We use notions of intent all the time in our daily lives, trying to decide whether someone did something nasty on purpose or out of sheer cluelessness. Forgiveness has everything to do with intent.
Here, let me list a few slurs used about Jews like myself: hebe, yid, sheenie, big-nose, hymie, Ikie, kike, moch, and Shylock. In fact, there’s a whole section of a Wikipedia article listing these words and their derivation, part of a longer article on “Religious slurs.” Is publishing these words just as bad as hurling them at Jews? You’d have to be bonkers to think that. Likewise, my listing them as insulting synonyms—many of you may not know them—is not the same as using them to insult Jews.
But the New York Times apparently cannot make this obvious distinction. Columnist Bret Stephens called out his paper for its obtuseness in a column, and what did they do? They ditched the column! Why? Because it spoke truth to the spineless people in charge of the paper, who told the staff—who themselves maintained that their harassment training taught them that intent is irrelevant to shibboleths like the n-word—that they agreed: intent is irrelevant.
But he New York Post got hold of Stephens’ column and published it. How did they get it? They explain:
Last weekend, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens wrote a piece criticizing the rationale behind the forced ouster of Times reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr., but it was never published. Stephens told colleagues the column was killed by publisher A.G. Sulzberger. Since then, the piece has circulated among Times staffers and others — and it was from one of them, not Stephens himself, that The Post obtained it. We publish his spiked column here in full.
Check the link above, which claims that although publisher A. G. Sulzberger was consulted about trashing the column, op-ed editor Kathleen Kingsbury said the ultimate decision to trash the piece was hers. Here’s what she said:
“I have an especially high bar of running any column that could reflect badly on a colleague and I didn’t feel that this piece rose to that level,” Kingsbury told the site. “Bret and I had a professional conversation to kill the column on Monday night and he expressed his disappointment and we moved on.”
Read Stephens’ trashed column for yourself; there’s nothing in it that would warrant its trashing, and almost nothing about Stephens’ colleagues, for it’s largely about the use of “intent” in journalism. It was ditched because it implicitly criticized the editors and publishers for bad behavior:
A few excerpts:
Every serious moral philosophy, every decent legal system and every ethical organization cares deeply about intention.
It is the difference between murder and manslaughter. It is an aggravating or extenuating factor in judicial settings. It is a cardinal consideration in pardons (or at least it was until Donald Trump got in on the act). It’s an elementary aspect of parenting, friendship, courtship and marriage.
A hallmark of injustice is indifference to intention. Most of what is cruel, intolerant, stupid and misjudged in life stems from that indifference. Read accounts about life in repressive societies — I’d recommend Vaclav Havel’s “Power of the Powerless” and Nien Cheng’s “Life and Death in Shanghai” — and what strikes you first is how deeply the regimes care about outward conformity, and how little for personal intention.
I’ve been thinking about these questions in an unexpected connection. . . .
Stephens then recounts l’affaire McNeil, and quotes editor Dean Baquet’s and managing editor Joe Kahn’s memo to the staff:
In an initial note to staff, editor-in-chief Dean Baquet noted that, after conducting an investigation, he was satisfied that McNeil had not used the slur maliciously and that it was not a firing offense. In response, more than 150 Times staffers signed a protest letter. A few days later, Baquet and managing editor Joe Kahn reached a different decision.
“We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent,” they wrote on Friday afternoon. They added to this unambiguous judgment that the paper would “work with urgency to create clearer guidelines and enforcement about conduct in the workplace, including red-line issues on racist language.”
Stephens emphasizes that his column is not about McNeil’s case in particular or whether the n-word is offensive and hurtful. As he says, “This is an argument about three words: ‘Regardless of intent’.” He then shows that the Times itself has used the n-word, in full, repeatedly, and explains why, especially in journalism, the question of intent is important:
Do any of us want to live in a world, or work in a field, where intent is categorically ruled out as a mitigating factor? I hope not.
That ought to go in journalism as much as, if not more than, in any other profession. What is it that journalists do, except try to perceive intent, examine motive, furnish context, explore nuance, explain varying shades of meaning, forgive fallibility, make allowances for irony and humor, slow the rush to judgment (and therefore outrage), and preserve vital intellectual distinctions?
Journalism as a humanistic enterprise — as opposed to hack work or propaganda — does these things in order to teach both its practitioners and consumers to be thoughtful. There is an elementary difference between citing a word for the purpose of knowledge and understanding and using the same word for the purpose of insult and harm. Lose this distinction, and you also lose the ability to understand the things you are supposed to be educated to oppose.
You can read the rest for yourself; here’s Stephens’ ending:
We are living in a period of competing moral certitudes, of people who are awfully sure they’re right and fully prepared to be awful about it. Hence the culture of cancellations, firings, public humiliations and increasingly unforgiving judgments. The role of good journalism should be to lead us out of this dark defile. Last week, we went deeper into it.
Now can you tell me why this column was spiked except that it was clear, true, and a big spanking for the Times‘s editors? A discussion like this one is important—important for the paper and for journalism. Many op-eds that get published in the NYT are far less weighty. Yet they chose to throw it in the circular file. In general, the NYT does not like to report on itself: this affair has appeared mostly in the pages of The Daily Beast, Vanity Fair, and even CNN Business.
And I wonder if Stephens, after his column was spiked and passed on by somebody to the NY Post, now has an uncertain future at the Times.